The Scientific Study of Bull****

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One of my favorite emerging fields of study in the sciences right now is the what I’m calling metaphorical scatology — not the study of actual shit, but the study of the stupid shit that comes out all our mouths at some point. That’s right: bullshit.

New progress was made in the field this month via John V. Petrocelli of Wake Forest University, who found compelling evidence that we’re most likely to spew bullshit when there is social pressure for us to have an opinion about something and there’s little chance that we’ll actually be held accountable for that opinion — in other words, the Internet.

First Petrocelli had undergrads (the normal psych study participants, though in this case maybe it’s a really good group to study bullshitting, I don’t know) list opinions about various topics, telling half the group that they didn’t have to list an opinion if they didn’t want to, but not telling the other group that.

In a second experiment, Petrocelli had subjects list an opinion with no recourse, and then list three more that they were told would be evaluated by an expert and then discussed with them in a recorded conversation.

Sure enough, he found that people were more likely to offer a bullshit opinion (that is, one not based on facts or knowledge of the subject) if they felt pressured to do so, and if they didn’t think they were going to have to defend it to someone who knows about it.

This got me thinking about how often I bullshit. I mean, the answer is “pretty much always,” because I love to hear myself talk, but I do have occasional crises in which a news story is happening and as someone with a sizeable following, I feel the need to have a “take,” either on Twitter or here on YouTube. But often, I have an opinion but I know that if I express it, I’m going to need to defend it against some very smart people in my audience who I respect, so in general I keep things to myself unless I feel strongly about it.

But right now, it’s almost impossible to not feel pressured to feel strongly about everything. There are literal Nazis marching in the streets. Israel is gunning down Palestinian protesters while the Trumps smile in front of a new Jerusalem embassy. Brooklyn 99 was (almost) canceled. If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention. I mean, that’s the way the saying goes but the truth is that everyone is angry despite the fact that everyone is clearly not paying attention. A lot of people are just angry because a lot of stuff is happening and they feel like they’re supposed to be angry — at the Nazis, at antifa, at feminists, at North Korea, at Trump — we live in an angry time, my friends.

And so, we also live in a time of bullshit, because as this study helps to show, bullshit isn’t just something that exists inside a person and spews out at random times — it’s reliant upon social factors. Bullshit is cultural, and we may be experiencing a bullshit bubble right now. I’m not sure if popping it would be a good thing or a bad thing.

In his paper, Petrocelli points out that the cure for bullshit is calling people out on it. Since it thrives best in a situation in which the person knows everyone will nod and go along with it, make sure that if you know what you’re talking about and someone else is bullshitting, speak up! Don’t let someone at a party randomly just say “yeah, there have been studies that show vaccines cause autism but the government is hiding it.” Ask them where they heard that. Tell them they’re wrong. The next time they want to dribble out some bullshit, they may just think twice.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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One Comment

  1. Just a quick note, but, those “Palestinian protesters”? Yeah, about that… By the way, Hamas is refusing medical aid because if these people die, it means they get added to the death toll. Isn’t that nice?

    Bad enough to have people like Linda Sarsour going around saying “oh we’re just like those people in North Dakota”. No. No, they’re not like us and they never will be.

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